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This address asks how much has education contributed to social mobility in post-war Britain and considers other factors that may have contributed as much or more: labour-market opportunities, trends in income inequality, gender differences and ‘compositional effects’ deriving from the shape of the occupational hierarchy. Even where these other factors proved much more powerful – especially labour-market opportunities and compositional effects – democratic discourse both among politicians and among the electorate remained fixated on educational opportunities and outcomes, especially after the decline of the Croslandite critique of ‘meritocracy’. That fixation has if anything been reinforced by the apparent end to a ‘golden age’ of absolute upward mobility for large sections of the population, not necessarily because education is an effective antidote but because the alternative political solutions are so unpalatable both to politicians and to voters.

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I hope it will be clear that I could not have written this paper without drawing deeply on the work not only of historians, but also of sociologists and economists. For helping me tackle the social-science literature, I have to thank Alice Sullivan and especially Anna Vignoles, who needless to say bear no responsibility for my very partial understanding. I owe a continuing debt to Jon Lawrence, not least for a co-taught M.Phil. course on class and social mobility that has brought me more or less up-to-speed on the historical literature, and to Deborah Cohen, who gave this paper, as she did its predecessors, the benefit of her scrupulous and generous eye.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Fiona Devine and Yaojun Li , ‘The Changing Relationship between Origins, Education and Destinations in the 1990s and 2000s’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34 (2013), 768–9

Carol Dyhouse , ‘Family Patterns of Social Mobility through Higher Education in England in the 1930s’, Journal of Social History, 34 (2000–1), 817–41

Andreas Cebulla and Wojtek Tomaszewski , ‘The Demise of Certainty: Shifts in Aspirations and Achievement at the Turn of the Century’, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 18 (2013), 147

Vikki Boliver and Adam Swift , ‘Do Comprehensive Schools Reduce Social Mobility?’, British Journal of Sociology, 62 (2011), 89110

Judith Glaesser and Barry Cooper , ‘Educational Achievement in Selective and Comprehensive Local Education Authorities: A Configurational Analysis’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33 (2012), 223–44

Richard Breen and Jan O. Jonsson , ‘Inequality of Opportunity in Comparative Perspective: Recent Research on Educational Attainment and Social Mobility’, Annual Review of Sociology, 31 (2005), 234

Erzsebet Bukodi and John H. Goldthorpe , ‘Class Origins, Education and Occupational Attainment in Britain’, European Societies, 13 (2011), 358, 360–1

Erzsebet Bukodi , John H. Goldthorpe , Lorraine Waller and Jouni Kuha , ‘The Mobility Problem in Britain: New Findings from the Analysis of Birth Cohort Data’, British Journal of Sociology, 66 (2015), 104, 111

John H. Goldthorpe , ‘The Role of Education in Intergenerational Social Mobility: Problems from Empirical Research in Sociology and Some Theoretical Pointers from Economics’, Rationality and Society, 26 (2014), 265–89

Jo Blanden , Paul Gregg and Lindsey Macmillan , ‘Intergenerational Persistence in Income and Social Class: The Effect of Within-Group Inequality’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, series A, 176 (2013), 541–63

Jo Blanden and Stephen Machin , ‘Educational Inequality and the Expansion of UK Higher Education’, Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 51 (2004), 230–49

Stephen Gorard , ‘A Re-Consideration of Rates of “Social Mobility” in Britain: Or Why Research Impact is Not Always a Good Thing’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29 (2008), 321–3

Geoff Payne , ‘A New Social Mobility? The Political Redefinition of a Sociological Problem’, Contemporary Social Science, 7 (2012), 56–7

Phillip Brown , ‘Education, Opportunity and the Prospects for Social Mobility’, British Journal of the Sociology of Education, 34 (2013), 680–2

Anthony Heath , Alice Sullivan , Vikki Boliver and Anna Zimdars , ‘Education under New Labour, 1997–2010’, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 29 (2013), 227–47

Richard Breen and John H. Goldthorpe , ‘Explaining Educational Differentials: Towards a Formal Rational Action Theory’, Rationality and Society, 9 (1997), 294–6

Jo Blanden , ‘Cross-Country Rankings in Intergenerational Mobility: A Comparison of Approaches from Economics and Sociology’, Journal of Economic Surveys, 27 (2013), 61–2

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Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
  • ISSN: 0080-4401
  • EISSN: 1474-0648
  • URL: /core/journals/transactions-of-the-royal-historical-society
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